Welcome to Part 5 of God & GMOs, a series I’m writing in consultation with my molecular biologist husband, Aaron. If you’re new around here, you might want to check out the Introduction, Part 1: The Gospel, Part 2: What is a GMO?, Part 3: “Do Your Research, and Part 4: Pursuing Truth, so you can say “hi” in the comments. I know most readers probably haven’t heard much in favor of GMO crops online or in your church, so let me know if you have any questions or need clarification as we go!
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Many people with reservations about GMOs have told me something like this: “I’m skeptical because I don’t trust big business; I think the agricultural industry is all a political game at this point.” They’re talking about the big crop development companies and the negative stigmas surrounding profits, patents, labeling, and various licensing practices of the “Big Ag” development industry, and they’re talking about the prevalence of large, industrial farms with concerns about monoculture farming (growing large amounts of fewer crops) and various chemical treatments like herbicides and pesticides. Monsanto is the most notorious company (and the target of much anti-biotech hatred), but there are other big companies like Dow AgroScience, Syngenta, DuPont-Pioneer, and BASF. There are also numerous small companies, like the one Aaron works for, which develop crop lines using the same technology and sell to farmers on a smaller scale.
I’ll say from the start: Aaron does not work for Monsanto. We think they are a great company and personally know many people who do work there. We go to church with them, visit the zoo with them, babysit each other’s kids, and eat dinner together. They’re good people. As far as I can tell, the most we’ve ever gotten from the company itself was a reusable grocery bag Aaron picked up at some conference, which I now use every week at Aldi. (I’m trying to work up the nerve to take it into Trader Joe’s, or maybe even… Whole Foods. Pray for me.) But if you search for GMOs on any social media or online search, or even bring it up in conversation, you’re likely to hear a lot of negative things (and many flat-out lies) about this company. We hear this negativity in person a lot, too. Since Aaron’s employer is smaller and not well-known, we usually say he leads a team of scientists in biotech development without naming the company (because no one’s heard of it before), and many people have said, “But not Monsanto, right!? They’re the bad ones!” This isn’t just idle words for some anti-GMO activists, who coordinate massive protests and marches as part of the “March Against Monsanto” movement. (I assume they pick on Monsanto over other companies because their name is most easily changed to spell “Satan.”)
Though they’re all working in the same field toward the same ultimate goal of providing food for people, the “Big Ag” players are essentially direct competitors of my husband’s employer. I’m not on anyone’s payroll to say this (it’s the opposite, actually, since I’m paying for childcare), and a giant turn of cultural affection towards Monsanto, Pioneer, BASF, or anyone else wouldn’t necessarily benefit Aaron’s work in a measurable way. But I’m especially burdened that there’s a lot of vitriol coming from Christians towards companies that, frankly, do not deserve the hate. Just this week I have seen two different friends (people I know in my real life) making snarky and destructive comments online denigrating various biotech development companies and employees – before or after sharing Bible verses and other Christian material. The New Testament speaks to this, even more sharply than I recollected initially: “No human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so.” (James 3:8-10) When it comes to what we say about scientists and farmers and companies, big or small, we should be careful that our words are true and that they do not contradict our profession of faith.
Many of the negative things I’ve heard and seen about Monsanto have been proven false with a very quick fact check. Most of us are not very connected to farmers and the food production industry at all, so I’m going to talk a little bit today about how these “Big Ag” companies work and why we don’t need to feed on extra cynicism about the agricultural industry.
Contracts, patents, and “saving seeds.”
Farmers of all kinds have lots of options for working with different companies, and there are plenty of ways to grow non-GMO crops. These “Big Ag” companies are in business because hard-working farmers choose to purchase from them year after year. One such farmer in Indiana wrote about his contract with Monsanto for growing their crops here. An Iowa farmer wrote about how he decides which seeds to purchase for his 500 acre operation. Another family farmer with 1400 acres of cattle and crops in Kansas wrote about discerning fact from fiction about Monsanto here – many of the things I was going to list in this post are already there, so I’m not going to reiterate them!
Many people like to criticize the patent and licensing regulations that go along with purchasing these seeds, saying we shouldn’t patent crops or that it’s wrong for a company to forbid saving and sharing seeds. It’s important to consider that patents and licensing rights are a way to protect and reward the intellectual property of the developers. As Christians we can read scriptures like I Timothy 5:18 that tell us “the laborer deserves his wages,” and even stronger statements from the Old Testament that say withholding money from someone who has already worked for it is equivalent to theft, like Leviticus 19:13. While the current system is far from perfect, it is not immoral to require payment for a service rendered. I’d argue that it’s actually immoral to demand the fruit of someone’s labor without compensating them.
When certain farm contracts require farmers not to reuse seeds, trade them, or collect them for replanting, we should think about the legal use of most other creative products. Back when we had CD’s, you weren’t supposed to burn copies of a CD to hand out to all your friends. You’re not supposed to print off extra copies of books for profit or download pictures from the internet without permission of the creator. We have legal guidelines about the use of all sorts of products – this isn’t unique to crops and farming. I’ve also found that most of this is a manufactured controversy in the first place, because farmers don’t really want to save seeds anyway. It’s extremely laborious and time consuming, and after all that work the yield of saved seeds is not nearly as effective as growing new seeds. These contract rules aren’t always limited to GMO crop seeds, either. Farmers can certainly seek seeds from distributors who don’t have requirements about where and how you can plant, but these big businesses are still running because so many farmers choose to operate within their rules.
Are Big Companies out to ruin Small Farmers?
I also dug in to claims I’ve heard about Monsanto suing other farmers for accidental cross-pollination with Monsanto products, and found the landmark case — farmer Percy Schmeiser in Canada claiming his entire canola field was contaminated with Monsanto’s Round-Up Ready Canola, which you may have seen in the movie “Food, Inc.” — was basically a joke. You can read the Canadian Federal Court decisions (March 2001, September 2002) and the final Canadian Supreme Court decision (May 2004) for details, but it seems like this guy’s implausible story keeps changing through his legal journey and the courts didn’t rule favorably for him on any point. His story just does not hold up and there haven’t been any other examples of GMO crops contaminating entire fields like he claimed. Governments are not infallible and some may argue this is further indication of political-industrial corruption, but we ought to be just as skeptical over the unsupported claims of a lone farmer and a documentary as we are towards bigger groups of people. It’s also worth pointing out that when Monsanto does win a court case over a contract violation (which has happened all 9 times they have been to trial in the last 10 years – hardly a significant amount compared to 3+ million contracts they have had with farmers during this time), their legal action protects the interests of the farmers who do abide by the legal guidelines and the lawsuit proceeds are donated to charity, not lining their pockets.
Why does this matter?
Like I discussed earlier, truth always matters for Christians. While the average grocery shopper has the rare privilege, compared to history and much of the world still today, of purchasing food without much concern for how it came to be there, those of us who wonder about our food and it’s development should be careful to find full, faithful information to answer our questions. And when the Bible tells us that the devil is the father of lies, and is like a prowling lion bent on destruction, we should expect to be confronted with smooth and appealing deception. We should also be very cautious about sharing, spreading, or passively approving things that aren’t true, as this is sin and it damages others (as well as our Christian witness).
But it also matters because, believe it or not, the cultural stigmas and activist criticism that leads to more governmental regulation of these big companies actually just places further burdens on smaller companies, which creates incentive for bigger companies to merge and leaves fewer players on the field. (This part might possibly be a conflict of interest, but… it’s coming from a place of love!) The fact is that biotechnology isn’t going anywhere. In many ways, GMOs are here to stay, and I think it’s better to keep these powerful tools in the hands of many different groups for maximum benefit to farmers and consumers. It’s a fair guess that big companies like Monsanto or Syngenta will be able to weather whatever regulatory burdens come their way, but smaller companies will not always be able to do that. Someone who really hates Monsanto would probably be better off fighting for less regulatory burden on crop developers, so smaller companies could grow quicker and new start-ups could get off the ground easier for greater flourishing in collaboration and competition among biotech developers.
If you’re reading this and still thinking, “Okay, but what about that pesticide, glyphosate, with the brand-name Round-Up? Doesn’t it cause cancer?” or you’re wondering what to make of the large industrial farming side of this discussion, I’ve got you covered. Stay tuned!
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